Ann Widdecombe interviews Jeremy Paxman

The former Tory MP grills the University Challenge and Newsnight host


Most politicians would trade in their expenses to interview Jeremy Paxman, but I had two problems: first, Jeremy only wanted to talk about University Challenge and second, I like him (not just because he admits to voting for me on Strictly).


A professional interviewer would never let either consideration get in the way and would cheerfully savage her granny in return for looking clever, but I, whom his profession dubbed Doris Karloff, am made of softer stuff.

So I tried, at least to begin with, to keep focused on University Challenge. His starter for ten was, I thought, pathetically easy: for how long had he been chairing the programme? He didn’t know and, unembarrassed, asked me for the answer.

I didn’t know, so he blamed me for not doing my research. With tricks like that he could have been a politician.

He likes good grammar – although he said, without irony, “It’s like grammar matters.” He likes Oxford and Cambridge, but does not like the dearth of aspiration in schools. May he chair University Challenge for years before becoming an education minister – then he can face the likes of himself at regular intervals.

How do you feel about being interviewed?

Well, I’m obviously more comfortable with the boot being on the other foot. But you go ahead: do your worst, Widders!

How long have you been doing University Challenge?

You tell me! I don’t know. When did I start?

I don’t know. Remind me.

I thought you’d have done some research!

I did — but I’ve clean forgotten.

I should imagine it is certainly over ten years. [It’s actually 17.] Not as long as Bamber Gascoigne, he did it for over 20 years.

As someone who’s watched University Challenge a lot, increasingly I can’t understand the questions, never mind the answers!

Well, that’s your problem, isn’t it, Ann? You’re making an observation, the interviewer’s job is to ask a question!

The question I am putting to you, Jeremy, is this: in Bamber Gascoigne’s day, the average viewer could answer a few questions per show. I’ve spoken to undergraduates now who say they can only get one. Does that limit your audience?

The questions have got more difficult, there’s no argument about that, because students know a lot more now. Yet the audience has grown. And you’re right – it’s a rare member of the audience, or indeed a rare contestant, who can answer every question, but remember, it’s a team effort.

But do viewers have a sporting chance?

Well you may not…

Do you know all the answers, Jeremy?

No, of course I don’t! I’m just an ordinary member of the public. I’ll give you an example. If the numbers one to ten are written out as words, which one comes first? [Pause] You’re already too slow. We ask that question in the new series and somebody buzzes in almost immediately. Completely startling! Not only what they know, but what they can work out while the rest of us are going, “One, two…”

Alphabetically, the answer would be eight.

That’s right, but you’re too late. I’d be slower than you, I’m sure, if I was working it out myself. Any imbecile can read questions on a card…

How much time do you spend ensuring you understand the questions before the show?

Of course I’ve seen them before! What do you think, you ridiculous woman? Of course one has done a bit of homework! Do you imagine that one just saunters in from the pub, sits down and reads out something from a card?

I didn’t ask if you spend time. I asked how much time. I can ask it 14 times!

You were responsible for that [in the dying days of John Major’s government Widdecombe took issue with Home Secretary Michael Howard, over the resignation of Derek Lewis, the director general of the Prison Service, which Paxman famously asked Howard to clarify on Newsnight 14 times]. That was your fault. You made me what I am, Ann.

Some apparently simple questions require a great deal of attention. I look at them sometimes two or three times, but the last thing I do before we go into recording is to find the ones that have particularly troublesome pronunciations – I’m always getting emails from people saying how bad my Italian is, or my Mandarin.

I was told off in an email for saying octopi.

As opposed to octopuses?

Octopedes. Ha-ha-hah!

Wonderful! But they are great, those letters. It shows that viewers are paying attention and that knowledge is not dead – and that these things matter. It’s like grammar matters.

Sometimes an answer can be almost right but not quite. Is there a voice in your ear saying, “Accept that,” or do you have to make a judgement on the spur of the moment?

Sometimes, someone will give an answer I accept and the producer says I shouldn’t have, in which case I’ll say, “You’ve got to check that.” Or I’ll reject it and the person who was giving the answer will say, “That was the right answer, you know!” Again, we have to stop and check it.

But then it’s too late.

No, you stop the recording. I don’t want to shatter the illusion here, Ann, but you do know it’s all a recording? In the series just starting, there were several occasions where I was willing to accept a near-miss and the producer – who is a monster and very harsh – came in my ear and said, “No, you can’t accept that.” It was all chaos.

Has that happened a few times?

Yes, of course. It’s important that it’s right. There was an occasion when we mixed up Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger. How very embarrassing. We care about that sort of thing. The producer is right to be a monster.

When you were a student, did you want to have a go at University Challenge?

I did have a go. I didn’t get chosen! There was a quiz going on one night to choose a team for University Challenge. I remember going along with a couple of friends, sitting in the common room and failing to answer questions, therefore failing to get selected for the team.

Well, we have something in common, because I too was rejected for my college team.

It doesn’t reflect at all on your general knowledge or your mental ability. It is a very particular thing, playing a quiz.

Does there have to be a woman on the team?

I don’t think so – it seems to be a predominantly male activity, quizzing. I think you will find that the form of words in the letter we send to the student body says they should try to choose a team that is representative of their institution. This is code for “we would like to see some girls on the team”.

Why is it that men, rather than women, tend to go for quizzes?

I don’t know. Is it competitiveness? Is it… No, I’m not going to go any further actually.

It’s politically incorrect, but I wish you would.

I’m not being politically correct about it – I might make observations that are not kind.

Aside from competitiveness, what else could be the answer? Confidence?

All sorts of possibilities raise their heads, and like a very naughty interviewer, you’re trying to put words into my mouth.

I can’t think who you’re comparing me to…

I will not say what you want me to say!

At least I’m not sitting here pulling faces at you. That’s what you do to put people off. You don’t interrupt, you pull faces.

Pulling faces! HAH!

University Challenge is a great tribute to education, but it’s becoming fashionable to apologise for a good education. David Cameron almost had to say sorry for having the best education that money can buy in this country.

I think he said he was lucky, which is not the same as apologising. Why on earth should you apologise for luck? I mean, he was blessed.

Why do I hear people complaining that there are too many politicians at the top of the parties who have been to public school and Oxbridge? Should they not be glad that the best educated people are at the top?

The two issues are separate. Public school is one thing, because access to private education is dependent on parental means and there is an issue about that, because I don’t think any society can afford to neglect its resources simply because they haven’t got the money to pay for education.

The question about Oxford and Cambridge being somehow bad things is absolute tripe. These are two of the finest universities in the world. Why there should be any shame attached to them I simply do not know.

A lot of political claptrap is talked on the subject by people who, frankly, don’t know anything. The prevailing assumption by these critics appears to be that academics at universities would rather teach rich, stupid people than clever, curious, poorer people. What are they supposed to do? Produce people who know less? Is that the ambition? The stated ambition is that there is an equality of access.

I don’t think we’re far off that. I happen to know something about how these “elite” universities go about trying to attract people and they’re pretty conscientious.

Week after week in University Challenge, we see the brightest youngsters churning out very clever answers. Do you ever expect those sorts of minds to be put off by tuition fees?

No, I don’t, to be honest. That, of course, is not really the argument about tuition fees, but it’s a very clever question. I do not expect to see those people put off. They’re clearly driven by an intense intellectual curiosity that cannot be fed any other way. But be very careful how you write this. I am not saying I don’t think it will have an effect upon universities. I just wish everybody was encouraged to think it’s within their grasp.

I find it very dispiriting that so many education institutions and students don’t have higher ambitions, because it opens all sorts of doors to you. I’m not talking about careers, but the pleasure of the mind is an amazing thing. My life has been driven by the satisfaction of curiosity. It’s nothing more elevated than that. I rather wish that we prized it more highly.

Have we become afraid to be ambitious?

One could observe that young people nowadays grow up in an environment in which they’re told it’s going to be a tough business getting a job, it’s going to be pretty grim paying off your student tuition fees and all the other costs of university and that, therefore, you need to make some decisions about your life, before you ought to.

I go into schools and ask kids what they want to be, and the number of times they say a celebrity…

Ann, celebrity is recognition.

And money, or so people think…

Often it isn’t a great deal of money, but it is recognition, for sure. What that confers is significance. And I think it is to do with the decline of religion. This apparently achievable way of being significant to others fills that gap of purposelessness, or answers the question of what we are here for in a superficially plausible way.

I agree, the decline of religion has had a tremendous effect on a whole range of things. Going back, though, I’d argue we send too many kids to university rather than too few.

This is a whole other can of worms.

When we — and I think it was the Tories that did it — upgraded polys to universities, all we did was turn world-class polys into third-class universities.

Well, that is just a rhetorical assertion, Ann. Where is your evidence for this? Some of these places are really good in particular fields.

Some might be — but my point…

So why did you disparage the whole lot of them?

I didn’t.

Yes, you have. You said you turned them into third-class universities!

We can’t have an intelligent discussion!

No, we can’t when you keep making sweeping assertions with no evidence.

We’re handing out degrees that used to be diplomas and by telling people that they’re graduates, we’re increasing their expectations. They then find the world isn’t quite like that.

You’re just making assertions again. You’re not asking questions.

For a start, political intervention should be removed from university entrance — universities should select on merit and academically.

And that ends today’s party political broadcast!

Twelve years ago, it wasn’t unusual for a political interview to last 50 minutes. Nowadays, your average political interview is down to about ten. Are you contributing to a general dumbing down?

[Sighs] It’s a pretty tired old argument this, about dumbing down. No, it is not true that television generally is dumbing down. Now, in terms of political interviews, there are many more political interviews than there used to be.

They are short though, Jeremy.

Well [sighs again], I’m sorry you didn’t have 50 minutes on Newsnight every time you wished to say something.

There are times where I find myself yelling at the screen, “Let him finish! Let him finish!” because I actually want to hear the argument he is trying to make. Are we doing away with giving attention to the spoken word? You and I sat in lectures for hours.

Half the time I was asleep! I’m sure you were paying rapt attention. But I shall treasure the image of you sitting there, shouting at the screen and possibly hitting it. Do you throw things at it?

No, I don’t do that. I’ve never thrown things. How much longer will you do University Challenge?

I’ve no idea. There may come a point where they’ll say, “Let’s get rid of this old person.”

They won’t, will they?

Of course they will!

Who would you nominate?

It’s not my business! When I was first asked to do it, my reaction was that it was Bamber Gascoigne’s show and he should present it – and I freely confess there was a measure of self-interest in this, because I thought I was only going to suffer by comparison.

A few weeks later I saw Bamber Gascoigne in the old reading room at the British Museum. I went up to him and said, “Look, we’ve not met, but I think you should know Granada have still got the rights to University Challenge and if you’re interested, blah, blah.” He said, “Oh yes, they approached me weeks ago! I don’t want to do that. It’s much too much like hard work!”

So I rang the producer back and asked if the job was still going. There were a lot of people who said I shouldn’t do it because it’s just entertainment, but actually, I think it’s slightly more than entertainment. I wouldn’t want to exaggerate it, but Richard Dawkins thinks it should replace A-levels.


Don’t let your personal views about Dawkins colour your observations.

I think that observation is a particularly stupid one. What about these new universities he’s involved with opening?

Oh, the new college of the humanities. What about it? I’ve nothing to say about that.

I don’t understand what it’s got that Oxford and Cambridge haven’t.

I don’t know either. But maybe it does? I try to cleave to a rather radical position, which is when you don’t know anything about something it’s wiser to say nothing.


You’d never have let me get away with that!

I would have admired you for it, Ann.